More than  “Africa’s Che”: The life and legacy of Thomas Sankara

By Noah Elazar

Thomas Sankara (1949–1987) was a socialist revolutionary leader who took control of the former French colony of Upper Volta in 1983. He constructed a new national identity as Burkina Faso, and implemented wide-ranging, radical social, political, and economic reforms. Sankara was a controversial figure for his extreme politics and after just four years in the presidency, he was killed by his former friend and right-hand man, Blaise Compaoré. His policies, many of which directly and greatly benefited the Burkinabè people, as well as the distinct figure that he put forth, means that after his death, Sankara has taken on a new status as a political icon. Today he is remembered around Africa, and to a lesser extent the world, as a symbol of pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and left-wing politics. Western media often distills him down to “Africa’s Che.” But Sankara was a distinct figure on his own, and there are several important aspects to his legacy which deserve much greater attention from the wider world.

Sankara’s early life gave him personal experience with both colonialism and political revolution in Africa, which shaped him into the leader he became. Sankara was born in 1949, under French colonial rule in the territory of Upper Volta. The French had conquered the area which was to become Burkina Faso towards the end of the 19th century, and the formal territory of Upper Volta was established in 1919. However, France never considered Upper Volta to be of much worth, mainly taking Voltaic men to be manual laborers in other colonies. Upper Volta would gain independence from France in 1960, when Sankara was eleven years old. However, the first president, Maurice Yamégo, had strong ties to France and very little in the country actually changed with independence. When Yamégo’s government was overthrown in a military coup six years later, Sankara started to realize the power and importance of the country’s military, which would play directly into his later style of governing. When the new government, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sangoulé Lamizana, established the country’s first military academy, Sankara applied to and was accepted into the very first class at the age of 17.

In the academy, a progressive professor invited Sankara into discussions about socialism, neocolonialism, and political revolution, especially in Africa. This marked Sankara’s first exposure to radical left-wing politics. He gained further personal experience with political revolution when, after excelling at the Voltaic military academy, he was invited for further training at a military academy in Madagascar. In the third and final year of his stay in the island nation, it descended into political turmoil ending with a military takeover.

After returning to Upper Volta, Sankara began a highly successful military career where he became close friends with other radical members of the military, including Blaise Compaoré, who eventually served as his second-in-command. He also gained national recognition after successfully staging an ambush in a border dispute with Mali.

By 1980, Lamizana’s government had been in power with relative stability for nearly 15 years, unusual in the volatile West Africa of the time. However, Lamizana seemed disinterested in addressing any of the social or economic issues left over from Upper Volta’s time as a French colony. By the end of the year, Colonel Saye Zerbo took power in a coup. Zerbo pledged to fight corruption and reorganize the government. Sankara was offered the position of Minister of Information under Zerbo, which he reluctantly accepted. He soon brought diligence and determination to his post however, in which he strongly encouraged press freedom, especially to hold government officials accountable. It was as a public servant where he truly started to build his reputation and image. He forewent the luxury car offered to major government officials and could be commonly seen riding his bicycle around the streets of the capital Ouagadougou. When Zerbo’s government shifted towards authoritarianism following periods of unrest, Sankara very publicly resigned with a speech and radio broadcast.

Just seven months after Sankara’s resignation, yet another coup placed the moderate Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo in the presidency, and Sankara was soon appointed Prime Minister as an effort to appeal to the radical members of the military. In his acceptance speech, he swore an oath that he and other government officials would serve only the people, not themselves. This oath would end up becoming an important part of his legacy. In this position, Sankara made several prominent speeches, growing his skill at public speaking and his reputation in Upper Volta. At one rally in Ouagadougou, he viciously attacked Upper Volta’s elites, engaging the crowd with a call-and-response. He would use this technique to great effect in many of his speeches to the Voltaic/Burkinabè people.

Sankara’s radical language alarmed conservative officers in the government, as well as France. The African affairs advisor to French president François Mitterrand landed in Ouagadougou on May 16, 1983. Although French involvement has never been officially confirmed, just hours later, Sankara was arrested and jailed. It was far too late for the government to get rid of Sankara, however. Protests erupted in Ouagadougou almost immediately, resulting in a two month period of political instability before Compaoré led a band of radical military officers favoring Sankara in yet another coup. On August 4, 1983, Sankara made a radio announcement that the government had been overthrown and that he was leading a new revolutionary process.

As president, Sankara would continue to develop into an iconic figure. He was almost always seen in military fatigues and distinctive red beret, and, very importantly, he was seen. Sankara was never content to rule from the presidential palace; instead he visited villages around the country, making speeches and getting hands-on with government projects. Although more of an uncommon sight, he could still be seen cycling or even jogging unaccompanied around Ouagadougou. Intentionally or not, many of his policies created distinct symbols of his dedication to the common people. He sold off the government fleet of Mercedes cars and replaced them with the much cheaper Renault 5, and required government officials to wear traditional clothing manufactured domestically. In a country where the ruling class had always distanced themselves from the abject poverty that the majority of the country lived in, it must have been a powerful sight to see the president personally demonstrate his commitment to listening to the common people and keeping the political upper class in check.

He also made himself visible to the broader African continent. He was a staunch supporter of pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism. He made a particularly famous speech to the Organization of African Unity, dressed, along with his entourage, in domestically-produced clothing to demonstrate the ability of the African people to achieve self-sufficiency. In the speech, he was even more overt, railing against Western aid in Africa as yet another form of colonialism. When French president Mitterrand visited Ouagadougou in 1986, Sankara criticized his fellow leader to his face, and relentlessly harried Mitterrand to free several colonies still under French rule. France had recently welcomed the leaders of apartheid South Africa to visit, and Sankara coldly proclaimed to Mitterrand that “they dirtied [France], with their bloodied hands and feet.”

For many important people, Sankara’s attempts to accomplish his radical reforms were too much, too fast. Traditional indigenous leaders and political elites worried that he was taking power away from them (selling their fancy cars did not improve Sankara’s popularity among the political elite either); sections of the Burkinabè population were tiring of his constant push towards ever greater accomplishments; and the French were concerned over his vicious denunciations of imperialism. With increasing unrest, and the suspected support of France’s ally Côte d’Ivoire, his own second-hand man Compaoré organized his assassination and took power for himself.

Sankara may have only held power for four years, but in that time he constructed an enormous cultural and political legacy. Around Africa, he is a common face on tee shirts and as a sticker in taxi windows, and has been memorialized in poetry and song. The spread of his icon around the continent is a strong demonstration of just how much he inspired pan-African pride and resistance to the former colonial powers. Not only did he speak to the entire continent about their cultural value and need for unity, but he demonstrated exactly how countries could throw off the lingering shackles of neo-colonialism and create pride in their nation and culture. Additionally, he created meaningful symbols around himself, from the beret taken from his military uniform, to the bike he rode to work, to his iconic pose captured in a statue. Perhaps most importantly, through his eloquent and prolific public speaking, he coined impactful phrases summarizing his ideology and drawing people in. In a time before social media made short, punchy statements almost a political necessity, Sankara understood the value in such quotable phrases.

Although more rare, there are artworks from around the world about him, ranging from Italian opera to French multimedia, to American historical fiction. Sankara does not have as global an appeal as similar figures, such as Che Guevara, simply because his appeal was always to Africans and the unique political and cultural situation that they faced at the time. Still, he is revered in leftist circles as a successful revolutionary whose time in power was cut short by imperialist forces. It’s unclear how much of Sankara’s icon was deliberately created, although considering that he generally prohibited any depictions of himself, it may have been entirely unintentional. Regardless, there is a powerful lesson for leaders around the world in both his habit of developing symbols and catchphrases, as well as his genuinity in not trying to turn himself into an icon.

While his cultural appeal may seem relatively limited, Sankara also made important contributions to the political sphere, especially in regards to developing, post-colonial nations. Firstly, Sankara recognized faults with Western-style democracy and implemented a different system. While he has been called autocratic by Western media, Sankara simply had good reason to believe that the parliamentary system, which had been implemented under their first president, Maurice Yamégo, was ineffective in Upper Volta. It did not enable the common people to be involved in political decision making, and was dominated by a class of political elites. Instead, Sankara opted for Cuban-style Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), which, for the first time, gave many Voltaic/Burkinabè citizens a political voice. And although the CDRs unfortunately empowered young citizens who often abused their positions, the concept of highly localized, participatory democracy should not be completely discarded.

Secondly, Sankara demonstrated a model for nation-building from colonial history. Upper Volta was simply a line drawn around many different indigenous ethnic groups, without a shared language or culture. On the first anniversary of his revolution, Sankara changed the name, flag, and anthem of the country, in an effort to create a shared identity. The new name, Burkina Faso, combined words from the two biggest indigenous languages into a phrase which roughly translates to “Land of the Upright People.” The demonym, Burkinabè, added a suffix from a third language. Many of Sankara’s policies also worked to create a shared identity, mainly by encouraging cooperation and mutual support to achieve sweeping goals. These included massive campaigns to vaccinate children, plant trees, and build schools and other public facilities. When the Burkinabè saw genuine progress being made as a collective, the new national identity gained real meaning.

Thirdly, Sankara recognized the value of women and their domestic labor in his project. He encouraged women to join the labor force and men to recognize how much women contributed to their society. He promoted women to important roles in his government, and for one International Women’s Day, he directed men to take on the domestic tasks that women usually carried out, such as cooking and going to the market. Considering that the domestic labor of women is still grossly underappreciated around the world, there are certainly lessons to be learned from Sankara.

While Sankara’s cultural legacy may be small, he leaves a mark through his humble style yet iconic appearance. And his political legacy is anything but. His contributions to concepts of democracy, identity-building, and gender in politics are distinct, and unlike political theorists, he genuinely demonstrated that many of his ideas have merit. It is essential that he is remembered for his ideas as well as his important role in the history of Africa. We can all learn from his fierce love for his culture and belief in the ability of the common person to achieve greatness. Sankara did not think of himself as special: as he once said in reference to the entire Burkinabè population, “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.”


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